by TOM NIXON
Tick-tocking from one to the other of its contrasting protagonists like a pendulum of doom, Revanche broods and seethes along towards its seemingly inevitable titular climax, telegraphing a surprisingly simple and conventional revenge arc before becoming a fascinating rumination on self-doubt, the ways in which guilt can manifest, the crippling emasculation of having another man (a middle-class, married man at that) stick a bullet in your girl (main protagonist Alex spends half his scenes cathartically chopping up phallic pieces of wood), or in the killer’s case firing wayward (we learn later that he is infertile).
A couple named Alex (Johannes Krisch) and Tamara (Irina Potapenko) snatch secret moments of tenderness between fulfilling their respective duties as henchman and streetwalker for a slimy brothel-running pimp, whilst a cop named Robert (Andreas Lust) nervously trains for police duty. Alex, our central protagonist, keeps his mouth shut and has the introspective face and tough guy posture of a man all too aware and secretly critical of the decadence in which he is ensconced. His girl is coming under increasing pressure from her boss Konecny, encapsulated in a wonderfully perverse scene where he visits her in her room, attempts to browbeat her and stops just short of asking her for a sexual favor, as Alex watches in silence from under the bed. Alex, cold and distant and clearly madly in love (“you’re too soft,” says Konecny), devises a scheme to rob a bank and whisk her away, and it’s during the execution of this plan that Alex and Robert will meet and tragedy will occur, with the rest of the film picking through the painful fallout.
Unlike with most thrillers the power of Revanche lies not in the narrative climaxes but the murky spaces in between them. By placing rounded human beings in a cliched, self-consciously cinematic scenario and giving their emotional turmoil room to breathe and fester, Spielmann has married Hollywood cinema with the Euro-arthouse in a way that illuminates and exhilarates in equal measure. An overblown genre is methodically chopped apart with an axe, revealing all the sticky little emotions and niggling hesitations trembling beneath the surface of these macho exchanges. Not a second is wasted in augmenting the richness of these characterizations; some of the cool, distant, open, lingering shots bring Antonioni to mind in their evocation of the lonely, frustrated, guilt-laden mental landscapes these characters are traversing.
Spielmann is clearly concerned with teasing out insights and ironies inherent in the similarities between killer and bereaved, and in this regard at least he isn’t especially successful, as Alex is so clearly the primary focus, while Robert’s endless wallowing is far more banal and one-dimensional – more than once he looks at a photo of the victim and sulks, and even disregarding the melodramatic acting it all seems rather superfluous. In many of Robert’s scenes it becomes clear that the screenplay is somewhat limited by its dependence on conventions and narrative contrivances, never more evident than during a tidy confrontation by a lake, and that Krisch has been plugging any leaks with his exquisite aloofness, his blunt manner and blazing eyes. Fortunately he’s helped by two other strong characters entering the picture; Alex’s grandfather Hausner (Johannes Thanheiser) and Robert’s wife Susanne (an excellent Ursula Strauss) who picks up Hausner each week for church. Alex begins helping around Hausner’s farm in the aftermath of the tragedy, much to Hausner’s confusion (not only is it out-of-character but he doesn’t seem particularly happy doing it). Susanne, a far more nuanced character than her husband, has her own fascinating confrontation with Alex as she becomes more and more distanced from Robert’s self-loathing.
These strands converge upon one of the best bittersweet, anti-climactic endings in a year full of them, and cement Revanche’s place in the pantheon of rare genre pictures that derive their tension and intrigue from inaction, restrained acting, gaping silences. Most amazing is that it never falls into self-seriousness because the events unfolding onscreen are, theoretically, like something out of a blockbuster. Spielmann has struck a perfect balance, and the thing ends up feeling like the best Hamlet adaptation in years, an archetypal genre picture drowned by an excess of self-reflection, and all the better for it. Buy this.
Other new releases this week: Black Dynamite, Coco Before Chanel, Law Abiding Citizen